Friday, 28 September 2007

Disconnection Angst

Brother Tobias' computer is unwell.

I am working on it, with a screwdriver in my teeth, earthing bracelets strapped round my wrists, and a manual in each hand. I look like a proper IT person, without the bad hair and social disfunctionality.

I hope.

Friday, 21 September 2007

The Sound of Thunder

To have seen and heard an Avro Vulcan fly was an unforgettable experience. One hundred and eleven feet long and a hundred foot wide, with a wing area of nearly four thousand square feet, they were a jaw-dropping, brooding presence in the sky, capable of blotting out the sun. The four Rolls Royce Olympus turbojets seemed to allow the aeroplane to crawl across the sky, and their thunder shook the very ground.

Incredibly, the Vulcan was designed in 1947 and first flew in 1952. It could go faster and fly higher than the USAF's B52 Stratofortress. As the carrier for Britain's nuclear deterrent through much of the Cold War, they were a familiar presence, although they didn't see action until already earmarked for retirement. In 1982, in what were the longest bombing sorties ever flown, Vulcans flew from Britain to the Falklands via Ascension Island to drop conventional 1000lb bombs on Stanley Airfield. On those missions - a miracle of strategic planning - the refuelling tankers themselves needed refuelling tankers.

I last saw a Vulcan fly at West Malling around 1992, and the last ever flight was made on 23 March 1993 by XH558, which had been retained for display purposes. Overcoming seemingly impossible odds, and with the help of donations and a dedicated team of volunteers, after 15 years on the ground XH558 is very nearly airworthy again.

If they succeed and you have the chance to see this iconic, delta winged goddess in the sky, seize it. If you want to know more, or would like to play a small part in supporting their efforts - perhaps by taking part in their monthly draw - visit the Vulcan to the Sky Trust at

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Kirsty's Beach

The wind blows wild in winter
On the basalt beach.
Seaweed slime and tide-wrack
Strewn along the cold shore.
A fish box and a bottle,
Hailstones gathered by a burn.
No December place to be,
Kirsty's Beach.

In summer,
In the smiling sun, quartz sparkled;
Harebells, heather here and pink sea thrift;
Laughter trickled between the rocks,
Woke whelks;
Pebble splash, ducks and drakes,
A farm in the sand, of sticks and stones;
A child in clover.

Where has my farm gone, Daddy?
To the sea, my child, the gulls and the sea.
Will it come back, Daddy?
Constantly, my child,
To you, and me.

Brother Tobias

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Books and Comics

I've just finished Dominic Holland's 'Only in America'. I chose it because there were glowing reviews on the back, all written by fellow comics. I'm sure he's a charming bloke and a talented stand-up comedian. All credit to him for writing a book, and for getting it published. But I'm afraid the book is ordinary, anodyne, and lightweight. Emphatically not worth the £10.99 cover price. The characters were as two-dimensional as bookmarks, and the plot was silly and predictable. And I resent being influenced to buy by biased reviews (there seem to be too many 'byes' in that last sentence).

Probably plenty of people have loved it. People who select a book at the airport each August, along with the suntan lotion. But it really isn't as good as the celebrity reviewers made out. A 'first-class, sit-down, laugh-out-loud novelist' he is not, Barry Cryer.

Sandy Toksvig can write, and should have known better. But I guess it is difficult to turn down a request to big up a friend or colleague's oeuvre. Harry Hill can be excused; 'This book is the best thing to come out of Holland since tulips' is funny and critically equivocal. I find it hard to believe Graham Norton read it in one sitting. I doubt he ever has time to sit that long, and if he does he must have better things to do.

Of course, I should have worked it out for myself. If the publishers can't find ordinary, impartial reviewers to praise a novel, alarm bells should start ringing. It is an interesting conceit, when you think about it; choosing reviewers who have something in common with the author, but in a completely irrelevant context.

"There's this Welsh chap, Dylan Thomas. Written a play called 'Under Milk Wood'. Who shall we get to review it?"

"Oh, how about Neil Kinnock, Aled Jones and Sian Lloyd? They're Welsh"

Also, I got this uncomfortable feeling that he had written it with a follow-up movie in mind. Not just because that was part of the plot, but the way the chapters were constructed, and the slightly visual gags. If you want to write a screenplay, write a screenplay. Don't pass it off as a book.

Ah, okay. I've just looked at Dominic's web site, and he admits the book was inspired by an unsuccessful screenplay called 'The Faldovian Club', so 'Only in America' was pretty much written as a screenplay after all. And he has since worked it up as a screenplay after it was optioned by the BBC.

Clever me.

Reading further on the web site, Dominic (to his credit) has included the following review from 'some guy from Amazon'. I think the inclusion is intended to be ironic, but I'm afraid this reviewer has it absolutely right:

"Whilst being a fan of Dominic's stand up and radio shows, I honestly thought this was one of the worst books I have ever read. It is facile and pointless without the redeeming feature of being slightly funny. All the characters have been designed with the forethought of the story being made into a film - which I believe is going to happen. As you read it, it feels like a screenplay - I want to read a book, not the layout for a film. If you want to read a good book by a comedian, try Talk of the Town by Ardal O'Hanlon which is darkly humorous - a black coffee to Holland's banana milkshake of a book."

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The Wee Mannie

It's funny what you buy on holiday. Experience Oban in the rain, and one becomes a sucker for any divertissement. We coveted quaiches, tacky with embossed thistles. We fingered 'Jimmy' hats with ginger fringes. We sampled thimbles of whisky liqueur and developed an unhealthy interest in plastic kitchenware in Aldi. We even ate stuffed pancakes in a stuffed pancake place.

So that's my excuse. This is Peking Peeing Man, bought from a quirky shop on the Corran Esplanade. The kind that sells tartan pan pipes and heather-scented bath bombs.

The instructions the proprietor gave were not quite right, so we had to fall back on school physics and Boyle's Law. Put the wee mannie in warm water and the air inside expands, and he blows bubbles from unusual places. Immerse him in cold water, the air cools, and he becomes a little vacuum nozzle. Then pour hot water over him and stand back. Delight and amaze your friends. Be the envy of the neighbourhood. A great conversation piece and icebreaker.

Can't think how we got by without him.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Of Policemen and Lap Dancers

It has been a strange week. Sunday afternoon my car was sideswiped by an 18 year old girl named Lauren, driving too fast on a country lane with a cigarette in one hand and no doubt her boyfriend in the other. The following day her mother rang. Her opening remark, 'We are both educated people' (delivered in a Medway Towns accent) seemed questionable and somewhat irrelevant. In the course of the conversation it emerged that she thought I had been driving. When I explained that it had in fact been my wife, the woman accused me of being a liar and 'dodgy', promising to have me investigated by the police. That seemed like an excellent idea, and far preferable to being harangued by a mad virago, however imperceptibly educated. However, the call left me curiously unsettled; from being an injured party probably about to be out of pocket thanks to the recklessness of a teenager, I was left wondering how to clear my name.

On Tuesday we arrived home to find two police cars in the drive, and uninformed policemen and policewomen peering into our windows. Before I could surrender myself they explained that they were looking for a nearby house. We told them how to find it, and then they were just uniformed. K remarked that they were fit. Including the women. (It's the outfit that does it, I think. I once had a crush on a Salvation Army girl in Lowestoft...)

On Wednesday night some hillbilly woke us at 1.15 am by sounding their horn repeatedly outside the house. Brother Tobias spent most of the rest of the night unable to sleep, alternately devising appropriate punishments for whoever the retard had been (mostly involving those rubber bands they use to dock lambs' tails), and reading Peter Carey's 'True History of the Kelly Gang' - my early autumn recommended read).

On Thursday night a neighbour's house that we had been asked to keep an eye on was burgled. Spent much of Friday fielding police and forensic officers, repairing damage to the neighbour's door and making good the constabulary-issue hob-nail boot prints in some recently seeded grass in my garden.

On Friday night, on his way to work, the headlamp on K's boyfriend's motorbike went out suddenly, and he stacked it in a hedge. He tried several times to call us reverse charge as he had no credit on his phone. Unfortunately my wife misheard the name each time, and refused to accept the calls. Eventually he flagged down a passing stranger, borrowed their phone, and got through.

Untimely ripped from his bed, Brother Tobias managed to cobble the headlamp with the help of a twig. However, this was patently unreliable, so we drove ahead of him. Just as well. On an unlit stretch of rural dual carriageway the lamp went out again. He stopped the bike, switched on the indicators, then wheeled it onto the verge. Except there wasn't a verge, just a deep ditch, and indicators, boyfriend and bike disappeared completely from the rear-view mirror.

We succeeded in wheeling the bike by torchlight to the car park of a pub - the only dwelling in sight. This seemed a handy place to contact the AA (the motoring organisation, not Alcoholics Anonymous). Except that of the two mobiles in our joint possession, one had no credit and the other needed recharging. K peered into the pub window to see if there was a pay phone, and reported with a degree of surprise that there was a naked girl in the bar.

It turned out to be a members' only lap dancing club, and very hospitable they were too. A phone was made available and lemonade was offered. AA men came and went, and it was past 1.00 am before a trailer arrived to take the bike away.

Four hours in a car park on a September night is not Brother Tobias' perfect evening out, but the leather-scantied girls who came out at intervals to cool off and have a smoke were charming and solicitous, and the club has generously offered to host a stag night for us, should the occasion arise.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Nordic Walking

Today Brother Tobias is a little babelas.

Nothing seems quite right. About twenty walkers have just crossed my line of vision, one behind the other like cows heading for a trough. All of them had Nordic walking poles, propelling themselves along with alternate arm movements like mad cross-country skiers. This on a nearly flat, grassy field in southern England, for heaven's sake.

I suppose they were trying to keep fit. According to one US supplier, Nordic ski walking burns up to 46% more calories than walking without poles. But, they warn, 'hundreds of backpackers have tumbled down the trail when their telescoping poles collapse unexpectedly'.

I am not a nice person; I find the image of hundreds of backpackers tumbling down the trail clutching unexpectedly telescoped walking poles funny. That'll teach them to be 'backpackers' and to walk 'trails', and to adopt an unnatural walking technique that is harder work and carries group tumbling risks.

I should never have drunk John's elderberry wine.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Of Cabbages and...

Where I once worked there was a filing clerk whose name wasn't Joan. Not Joan's husband was a policeman. One day he went to Tesco's and bought some potatoes, a leek and half a cabbage wrapped in polythene. He put them on the floor behind the driver's seat. At some point during the journey home the half cabbage rolled under the brake pedal. When he tried to stop at a traffic light the cabbage wouldn't let him, and he rammed the car in front. They don't practice cabbage stops on pursuit driving courses.

Not Joan's family lived up north. One year her aunt drove down to visit them. It was the furthest she'd ever driven. Although she arrived safely, the journey took longer than expected. The aunt explained that she had had to go quite slowly, because the A1(M) was so bumpy. It turned out she'd driven the whole way on the hard shoulder.

Working there made me feel quite normal.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Time and Motion

My wife and I, we're like a well-oiled team. (She often accuses me of being well-oiled, but that's not what I'm talking about).
Here's a past example.

Someone leaves a new telephone directory by the gate. On the way back from the garage, I collect it, remove the polythene wrapper, exchange it for the old directory by the telephone, and leave that one on the hall table, ready to go out to the dustbin (they won't recycle telephone directories round here).

My partner passes, spots the directory in the hall, exchanges it for the one by the telephone, and gives the new one, which she thinks is the old one, to the children to scribble on.

After they have scribbled for some time and got bored, I happen by, and naturally demonstrate how to tear a telephone directory in half (you break the spine and start there). It's what blokes do. Then I put the pieces on the hall table again, ready to go out to the dustbin.

My wife takes them out to the dustbin.

The dustmen take them away for incineration or landfill.

A small tree, or at least a large branch, has died. Some carbon has been released. We have an out of date telephone directory. I have a sprained shoulder. And my wife says it's all my fault. See what I mean? Seamless. Not a joule of wasted effort. Teamwork like that takes years.

I Like the Red Ones Best

Today the results of an authoritative study into links between food colourings and hyperactive behaviour in children is published in the Lancet. It confirms what parents have known perfectly well for years; when one of their children begins to behave unusually maniacally or exuberantly, they think, 'What has he/she eaten?'. And invariably pin the abberant behaviour down to something consumed in the previous few hours - wine gums, soft drinks or whatever. (Incidentally, some parents would go beyond the current research and argue that it is not just 3 year olds, or 7 year olds, that are vulnerable. The effect can still be detected at 17 and may well apply to adults, though perhaps in a less overt form).

But hang on a minute. Getting a touch of déjà vu? In October 2002 a UK government-funded study by the Asthma & Allergy Research Centre found that food colourings could cause behaviour changes in toddlers, and lead to conduct disorder and educational difficulties. In 2004, in research funded by the Food Standards Agency, the team that completed the current study published findings which drew similar conclusions about the adverse effects of food colourings. Just how much evidence is needed to push government into banning the use of these cocktails of coal-tar derivatives - which have no nutritional or gastronomic value but are purely cosmetic? Whatever happened to the precautionary principle?

In 1956 Doll and Hill published a report that established a strong probability of a link between smoking and lung cancer. At that time tobacco duty funded about half the cost of the NHS, and it was not until six years later that the Royal College was prepared to unequivocally concede the link. Fiscal interest creates a powerful inertia.

Let's hope the Food Standards Agency and the European Commission will finally now act to ban the use of the implicated colourings - preferably in all foods, not just those targeted at children.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

The Devil's Rope

This week's Time magazine has a report about the banning of barbed wire in several Colorado townships. Environmentalists are pressing for bans because, while barbed wire is cheap and effective at keeping cattle in (or out, in the case of my garden), it is sometimes lethal to wild animals like elk and antelope.

My sister reminded me the other day that my grandfather refused to have barbed wire anywhere on his land, believing it to be cruel. I imagine he was thinking primarily of his stock, but perhaps also of deer, owls and other wildlife. Certainly the handful of gentle milkers which supplied us with milk, cream and butter, required no barbed wire to keep them in. Perhaps, too, the image of Flanders was fresh in his mind.

Uniwire, which describes itself as Britain's premier barbed wire manufacturer and supplier, boasts that it has sold enough barbed wire to go five times round the world. Today the thousands of miles of subsidised fencing which stretch across even the remotest hills and glens of the Highlands are invariably topped with barbed wire, even though the 3' stock-fencing below is more than capable of containing sheep and cattle, and a top strand of plain bull wire would be cheaper and as effective.

The few parts of Britain's farmed landscape which are still free of barbed wire either have stone walls, or were hunting country before the Act. I guess colonising tendrils of the Devil's Rope may already be creeping across the latter, even as the spinneys and coverts that once provided refuge for wildlife slip under the plough.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Jockey Short

My wife remarked this morning, 'Jack and Lucy have a new labrador. They've been planning it for some time.'

We all felt we should rush out and buy a card or something.

Which reminds me...

A week or so back some friends of ours were out with their three year old son when they ran into the former organiser of the local pony club.

'This is Simon', they proudly stated.

'Hello Simon', she beamed. 'Have you had your leg over yet?'

I'm told the stunned father was unable to speak for several minutes.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Spot the Deliberate Mistake

'Is that Olga Bauer?'

'Ya, this is Olga.'

'Olga, Hi. I've just been talking to your agent. We're doing a clothing shoot. Top end, for an international campaign. Arizona desert setting. Are you interested?'

'I'm already packing. When do we fly?'


'To Arizona.'

'Not Arizona, New York.'

'I'm already in New York.'

'I know. That's why we picked you. Well, that and the legs, of course.'


'I mean leg. Sorry. We're only looking for one. Part of our inclusive image strategy, you understand. Plus it'll make more room for pasting in the backdrop. We are right in thinking that you're alternatively gifted in the leg department, aren't we? Only we couldn't get Heather Mills...'

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Belated BlogDay

August 31 was BlogDay, apparently. A chance to draw my reader's (the singular is intentional) attention to blogs of greater and wider interest. So here are my belated suggestions.
Funny, creative, occasionally chaotic reports from my anglo-scottish cousin; post-punk icon meets kitchen crisis.
Acerbic, off-the-wall, proto blog from my anglo-irish niece. Worth monitoring for the saga of the feral plectrum alone.
Sophisticated and entertainingly oblique insights into wines and other good things of life from an importer and distributor aptly based in Cork. Also displays a discerning taste in blogs...
Uncompromising and sometimes choleric poke in life's eye.

I'm supposed to do five, but I can't be arsed.

Well, okay. This one's probably already the most visited blog in the Milky Way, but I've only just found it and it's a joy. The title says it all.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Eating the Band's Nuts

Saturday saw the arrival of the first summer weather I've had this year. And possibly the last. We were invited to a Carribean party ('Flowered shirts, grass skirts, or whatever you were wearing as the ship went down'). Good party, although I felt oddly compromised as the only sailor.

Best of all was the steel band. There were chairs and a table close by the gazebo the band was playing under, with drinks and dishes of nuts. We sat down. We drank the drinks and ate the nuts. The band watched us and beat hell out of their pans. It was as if they were trying to tell us something.

Later they took a break, and joined us at the table. 'We've probably been eating your nuts', I joked.

'Yes, you have', they replied. Not joking.

The band was named Nite Blues. The double and bass pans were played by twins who had come over from Antigua round about the early 1970s. They came from a very musical family. Every child (and there was a history of twins and triplets) was allocated an instrument - in their case, trumpet and sax. Each of the twins wanted to play, and was better suited to, the other's instrument, but they were not allowed to change. Instead, they evolved a unique act in which they crossed arms and blew their own instrument while keying the other's. It went down well.

The lead pan was played by an English-born girl who told us that she was shortly leaving for Ghana with her three children, because the UK was no longer a safe or suitable place to bring them up.

Nite Blues opened the very first Notting Hill Carnival, and have played for Sammy Davies Junior, Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, to name but a few.

They wanted K to go back and get her guitar, but she had a go on the pans instead. She did rather well, so they forgave us for eating their nuts.